The only part of the debate I encountered last night was a 90 second snippet while I was in the car picking up Moriah from rehearsals for the school musical. It was the point where Pres. Obama was talking about Gov. Romney's tax plan. Romney, in what seems to have been a performance fueled by Red Bull (in more ways than one) basically called the President a liar, then barged over the hapless Jim Lehrer in his insistence on getting in the last word.
If you don't believe in zombies, you weren't paying attention to Lehrer last night. From everything I read, this veteran reporter from the Taft White House was about as able to control the proceedings as a kitten herder.
The reviews all seem to be that Obama made a dog's breakfast of things last night, Romney barging over, under, around, and through both the President and the Moderator in an effort to say everything he could. Now, on the merits - as if that was all there ever is - Romney's performance was appalling. He managed to toss the Republican base, his sons, and even every speech he's given since the summer of 2011 under the bus in an effort to appear less crazy than the party that nominated him. If that's all we had as guides, then for all his haplessness, the President clearly came out on top.
The President's supporters, however, were looking for more. They wanted Obama to come out swinging, to hold up every crazy thing Romney has said in pursuit of the Republican nomination and ask the American people, "Really?" They wanted him to fight. To fight for the principles of the Democratic Party. To make his case that he really, truly understood that things still kind of suck and a Romney Administration would only increase the suck factor.
The problem with these wishes are simple enough. When has Barack Obama ever done such things? If the past four years have taught people anything, it's that Obama is willing to concede beforehand any principles that might make the Republicans complain to FOXNews. I would love to play poker with this guy.
It isn't only that Obama is and always has been a lousy debater. He seems averse to confrontation. He would much rather seek common ground, letting negotiations and debate and discussion swirl around niggling details in an effort to achieve whatever the goal of the moment might be. That he dragged out Simpson-Bowles last night, talked about "reforming" Social Security - as if that had anything to do with the operating deficit; as if, indeed, it has anything to do with anything other than making the ghost of David Broder smile - should tell an impartial observer all he or she needs to know about the President and his approach to dealing with the very real problems we face.
All this talk about tax cuts and spending cuts. Not a word, it seems, about jobs. Not a question about the fact that the only Republicans who oppose the Keystone XL Pipeline are the Nebraska Republicans who will face the consequences of this disaster-in-waiting. Did they mention the rapid increase in the melting of the Polar Ice Cap? Did the words "carbon tax", "cap and trade", or even "global warming" even come up? I can't tell from the discussions online.
Was there a question about gun violence? Not that I can tell.
Fracking? I haven't found a word about the practice that, not covered by the Environmental Protection Act, may yet set fire to wells across my home state while simultaneously dumping thousands of pounds of benzene, toluene, and God alone knows what other chemicals in the land and water.
In short, the debate kind of turned out the way I expected. Romney has been desperate enough to make sure he had everything crammed in his head, vomiting it out in a way guaranteed to make him look like someone who was calm and not-at-all crazy. The President, refusing to stand because that would require a spine, allowed it all to happen because he has never yet stood firm if there was space to the side where he could move.
At least the journalists can froth over the renewed horse race for the next couple weeks.
UPDATE: Charlie Pierce was reminded of the first Reagan/Mondale debate. Liberal radio gas-bag Thom Hartmann was reminded of the only Carter/Reagan debate (I heard the first fifteen or so minutes of his show on the way home from work this afternoon). Each used these past debates as touchstones, although I think Hartmann's was far more apt. As I wrote back in August, Pres. Carter is still waiting for the media to point out the many and sundry ways Reagan just spewed fantasy after fantasy. Some folks are consoling themselves that Gov. Romney's estrangement from the truth will, at some point, wear through the President's dismal performance. Others, like Craig Crawford (thanks, Lisa for the tip) offer the strategic defense narrative, sometimes referred to as the multi-dimensional chess argument. The problem with such arguments is they grant a certain benefit of the doubt that just isn't backed up by any evidence. For some reason, it's impossible for partisans to say their guy lost.
Obama bombed last night. He bombed big time.
Romney's been lying his way through the campaign, calling the President a liar, being a smarmy, entitled rich guy. His performance last night, as manic as it seemed, was nonetheless consistent with his actions since he began campaigning sometime in 2011. All the howling about Romney's nose growing each time he opened his mouth really doesn't mean that much. Forget Jim Lehrer, veteran of the McKinley White House Press Corps; he looked befuddled by his microphone; he was just not ready for Romney not to give a tinker's damn there was a moderator whose job is supposed to keep things moving along and regard certain rules and decorum as important. No, the job of saying to Gov. Romney, "You know, I wish I'd brought my hip-waders with me because the shit's getting really deep," that was up to Pres. Obama.
Romney managed to deny the tax plan he's been running on for over a year. Romney managed to toss his five kids under the bus as a bunch of liars. Romney managed to toss his running mate's signature "plan" away as so much dross. He did it all with the energy of a mosquito on crack, and attention to politesse of Leona Helmsley in IRS headquarters. None of these things matter because, to be honest, Pres. Obama sucked.
Will it matter next week? Will it matter when the next debate comes around?
Because the mainstream press now have their story, that Romney turned a corner, restarted his campaign, reinvented himself - pick the cliche - yes, it will indeed matter. The narrative for the campaign was needlessly altered last night. Not because Romney has so divorced himself from the truth that I doubt he even cares all that much. No, the fault for the change in circumstances lies solely with Pres. Obama and his stuttering, faltering performance last night.
This doesn't mean I want the President to lose. What I want, however, is for the President to do all sorts of things he has never done and, it seems, cannot do. Faced with an opponent who has demonstrated he is quite willing to do anything and everything to win, the President seemed unable even to muster an outraged glance at Romney last night.
None of this, however, deals with the initial substance of the post, viz, that the many and very serious matters we face "domestically" weren't even acknowledged as existing last night. Perhaps because Jim Lehrer thought "fracking" was a euphemism for what happened during the Clinton Administration, or got confused that the Keystone Pipeline didn't go through Pennsylvania. That's an even bigger source of frustration. Not that Romney floated above the solid ground of truth without a care in the world, nor even that the President looked and sounded befuddled and not-quite ready. It would be nice, I guess, if we could talk about actual stuff, instead of Romney's unicorn-producing tax plan or whether or not the President was a bigger liar than Jon Lovitz or Romney's five kids put together.